Obama Popularity Hits Low in Poll After Prisoner Exchange

President Barack Obama’s favorability ratings hit the lowest point of his presidency in a Bloomberg National Poll, with just 44 percent of Americans saying they have positive feelings about him.

That drop in personal popularity has become a broader drag on the public’s perception of his performance in office.

Obama, already given poor marks on the economy and health care, also gets low ratings on two recent political firestorms: the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the deal that freed the last U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, according to the poll.

His job-approval rating fell to 43 percent -- near the level at the end of 2013 after the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, his signature health-care law.

“In the past, Obama’s likeability has stayed ahead of perceptions of job performance,” said J. Ann Selzer, founder of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the June 6-9 poll. “It appears he is no longer likeable enough.”

Five months before the elections that will determine which party controls Congress, the poll results signal trouble for Obama and his fellow Democrats, who are struggling to hold on to their majority in the U.S. Senate.

Obama’s 44 percent favorability rating is down from his previous low of 46 percent, in December. Fifty-two percent see him unfavorably, matching the December high. And majorities disapprove of his job performance across a spectrum of issues.

Health Care

Fifty-eight percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care, 4 percentage points higher than in March, even as the law exceeded its original signup targets.

Fifty-seven percent disapprove of his management of the economy, with just 38 percent approving.

Still, while 58 percent say the U.S. is in decline as a world leader, half don’t fault Obama. Forty-six percent said some foreign leaders are challenging the U.S. because they perceive Obama as weak, while 50 percent said those leaders would likely behave in the same way toward any president.

As the president draws fire from Republicans and Democratic leaders for the agreement that swapped five Taliban prisoners for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 51 percent of Americans said they disapproved of his handling of the deal. Lawmakers in both parties have criticized Obama, who announced the accord on May 31 in the White House Rose Garden alongside Bergdahl’s parents, for failing to notify them about the exchange in advance.

Security Risk

Lawmakers such as Senators Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, and Republican John McCain, who was held prisoner during the Vietnam War, have raised questions about the security risks posed by the release of the Taliban fighters from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Some of Bergdahl’s former fellow soldiers say he deserted his post in Afghanistan. The deal calls for the five men to remain in Qatar for at least a year.

“The president isn’t a military leader, he’s never served,” said Pat Richardson of Simi Valley, California. “I have a feeling he didn’t consult with anyone in the military before he decided to take this action, to release five extremely dangerous people, three of whom have said they’re going to come back at the U.S. already. To put them in luxury in Qatar? Please.”

The 64-year old, self-described former Army wife, who said she voted for Obama twice, said the president also didn’t adequately consult Congress, and she questioned the circumstances under which the soldier was captured.

No Condemnation

“We don’t know what happened to Sergeant Bergdahl, whether he was just out for a stroll and didn’t take time to think,” said Richardson, an independent voter. “I don’t condemn him, but the president shouldn’t have done this quite in the way he did.”

As Republicans call for hearings on the issue, almost one in five Americans hasn’t reached a conclusion. While only 31 percent approved of how Obama handled the prisoner swap and 51 percent didn’t, 18 percent said they aren’t sure how they feel.

Fifty-four percent of respondents likely to vote in the midterm elections -- including 61 percent of those who describe themselves as independents -- said they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the exchange. While majorities of Americans who are 35 years and older disagreed with how the president dealt with the matter, just 43 percent of those younger than 35 feel the same way.

Backing Obama

“You can’t negotiate with terrorists,” said 40-year-old Bill Croteau of Columbia, South Carolina, an independent who said he voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Yet, he said, “I’m not privy to every nuance of the decision-making process. As an American, I’m going to support the direction that our leaders choose to take.”

Americans feel similarly negative about Obama’s handling of the alleged mismanagement of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides medical care to more than 8.3 million veterans.

Fifty-one percent disapproved of Obama’s management of the matter. Sixteen percent said they aren’t sure how they feel.

The agency’s secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned last month amid reports of widespread delays in providing health care for veterans. Lawmakers from both parties had called for Shinseki to be fired. Republicans have blamed Obama for the lapse.

Misplaced Blame

One veteran said the focus on Shinseki was misplaced.

“Veterans Affairs has been a fiasco since they created it,” said Terry Love, a 67-year-old disabled vet from Lakewood, Washington. “Firing the person at the top doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is at the bottom, it’s at the hospitals.”

Like the political flak surrounding the Bergdahl deal, the VA controversy will likely play out over the coming months. Republicans in Congress have called for hearings and will try to highlight the issues during the 2014 campaign as emblematic of a pattern of mismanagement and overreach by the administration.

Even so, the No. 1 concern for Americans continues to be unemployment and jobs. The economy contracted 1 percent on an annualized basis in the first three months of the year.

On the deficit, Obama’s approval numbers are at their lowest ever, with 63 percent of Americans disapproving and 28 percent approving, even as the Congressional Budget Office said the gap narrowed by 59 percent to $680 billion in fiscal 2013 and is projected to decline to $506 billion this year.

Obama’s approval rating also hit a low of 33 percent when it comes to negotiating with the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fifty-five percent don’t care for the way he has dealt with the opposition party.

Americans seem less certain about Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While 31 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove, 23 percent aren’t sure how they feel.

The poll of 1,005 U.S. adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.